By: Nicole Florisi – VirTra Subject Matter Expert; Investigative Focus

Originally published in July 2022 IADLEST Newsletter 

If you are having a panic attack, do you want me to support you or have a panic attack with you? The answer seems simple, obvious really. But it isn’t that simple in practice. If it were, there wouldn’t be a host of research on vicarious trauma and secondary traumatic stress from empathetic engagement with trauma survivors. In fact, everyone who empathetically engages with trauma survivors has the potential to be affected.

What are some signs of vicarious trauma?

  • Over-identification with the victim
  • Becoming over-emotionally involved with the victim
  • Experiencing lingering feelings of anger, rage, and sadness for the victim’s circumstances
  • Difficulty in maintaining professional boundaries with the victim
  • Feelings of hopelessness, sadness, anger, pessimism
  • Loss of objectivity

Sound familiar? It should. First responders frequently engage with trauma victims. First responders empathetically engage with trauma victims. Why? Because we are trained and told to do so. Empathy-based training is a law enforcement foundation and focus. But if you knew that empathy contributed to vicarious trauma and depressive symptoms, would you change that?

Empathy is considered a requirement for law enforcement officers. A core skill for good leaders. A key component of emotional intelligence. The panacea for building relationships, building rapport, and enhancing the likelihood of positive outcomes. From a training perspective and more importantly, a trauma-informed perspective, the implementation of empathy is not that simple.

Our goal as leaders, instructors, and coaches should be to mitigate trauma for first responders, not add to it. The intent to add trauma may not be purposeful, but the framework is. Empathy creates the potential for vicarious trauma. We have to acknowledge this before we can change it.

What is empathy?

At the core, empathy is the ability to share and understand the feelings of others. The goal of empathy is to deepen understanding, increase communication, and create space for individuals to be heard. Empathy is a foundation in many facets of communication, from the implementation of Active Listening Skills to the Behavioral Influence Stairway Model.

The concept of empathy is taught as a foundation in the application of different de-escalation tactics for law enforcement. Every de-escalation class I have attended has had empathy as a core skill, but none of those same classes teaches it in practice. In fact, I have never had any class that “teaches” empathy and most of you haven’t either. Why is that? Teaching empathy requires a level of
questioning, self-reflection, introspection, and emotional self-regulation that doesn’t happen in the time constraints of an 8-hour law enforcement training.

There are two types of empathy: cognitive and affective.

Cognitive empathy is the ability to identify and understand the emotions of another. Affective empathy is the ability to share feelings and sensations in response to another person’s pain. Other components of empathy are affective sharing; the natural capacity to become affectively aroused from another person’s emotions, empathic concern; the motivation of caring for another’s welfare
(self-serving or not), and perspective taking; the ability to consciously put yourself into the mind of another individual and imagine what that person is thinking and feeling.

There are numerous definitions for empathy and all of them concerning from a trauma perspective: share the feelings of another, walk in another person’s shoes, see the world through another person’s eyes, imagine what it’s like to be that person, see the world through another’s lens, vicariously experience the feelings of another. Another definition for empathy is “engaged suffering.” I do not want that for officers. Neither should you.

First responders are exposed to trauma on a level that no human being should ever experience. The argument of “that is what they signed up for” holds no weight. The trauma and stressors exist regardless. We have a responsibility to mitigate and prevent the trauma. Instead, we purposely provide officers with unbridled empathy-based training that creates an environment for vicarious trauma and depressive symptoms.

This is the nexus where empathy in practice creates trauma in reality. Forced human connection. Forced connections through trauma.

Ask yourself this. How much time do you want your officers to spend immersed in the trauma of those who they serve? If you aren’t answering that question with “none” then there is a problem. The longer we sit with the trauma of others, the more likely we will experience our own vicarious trauma.

Affective empathy is associated with depressive symptoms and an increase in vulnerability to depression. Distress increases when there is engaged suffering with someone. Secondary traumatic stress increases with empathetic listening. If we don’t address the weaknesses of empathy, we set our officers up for failure. Empathy allows for emotional resonance, the connection of “feeling with.” That sounds like it shouldn’t be an issue. The problem? “Feeling with” allows for emotional contagion. Where do people, including officers, make catastrophically poor decisions? When they lose critical and consequential decision-making skills which happens during emotional contagion, emotional overload, and over-emotional investment.

Empathy can enhance bias, including racial bias. Empathy plays favorites. We are more likely to align with those we like, those who are like us, those we have commonalities with, and those we find attractive, etc. It is more difficult to empathize with people who are not like us, who frighten us or disgust us. Functional MRI (fMRI) studies indicate that watching a person in pain can elicit
the same neurological response in the person watching. However, empathy disappears when it is someone disliked or hated. Instead, this can actually stimulate the pleasure center of the brain in lieu of an empathetic response.

One of the most understated tools of empathy is emotional manipulation. Officers are not always aware of these manipulation tactics, but this arises in certain populations, especially in personality disorders. Empathy can create a rush to judgment and allows for a misidentification of your wants versus another person’s needs.

Empathy is the act of experiencing the world as you think someone else does. We need to balance the weaknesses in empathy with resiliency. We would be much better rooting officers in a mindset of compassion combined with resiliency skills to prevent and mitigate trauma



  • Adler-Tapia, R. (2020). One badge, one brain, one life.
  • Bloom, P. (2016). Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Harper Collins, New York, New York.
  • Decety, J., & Cowell, J. M. (2015). Empathy, justice, and moral behavior. AJOB neuroscience, 6(3), 3–14.
  • Hamilton, A.B.B., & Breithaupt, F. (2019). The Dark Sides of Empathy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Jenkins, S.R., Baird, S. Secondary Traumatic Stress and Vicarious Trauma: A Validational Study. J Trauma Stress 15, 423– 432 (2002).
  • Moudatsou, M., Stavropoulou, A., Philalithis, A., & Koukouli, S. (2020). The Role of Empathy in Health and Social Care Professionals. Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland), 8(1), 26.
  • Norhayati MN, Che Yusof R, Azman MY. Vicarious traumatization in healthcare providers in response to COVID-19 pandemic in Kelantan, Malaysia. PLoS One. 2021 Jun 4;16 (6):e0252603. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0252603. PMID: 34086747; PMCID: PMC8177457.
  • Pearlman LA, McKay L. Understanding & addressing vicarious trauma. Pasadena: Headington Institute; 2008.
  • Sinclair, S., Beamer, K., Hack, T. F., McClement, S., Bouchal, S. R., & Chochinov, H. M. (2017). Sympathy, Empathy, and Compassion: A Grounded Theory Study of Palliative Care Patients’ Understandings, Experiences, and Preferences. Palliative Medicine, 31, 437-447.
  • Whitton M. (2018). Vicarious traumatization in the workplace: a meta-analysis on the impact of social support. New Zealand: The University of Waikato.
  • Yan, Z., Zeng, X., Su, J., & Zhang, X. (2021). The dark side of empathy: Meta-analysis evidence of the relationship between empathy and depression. PsyCh journal, 10(5), 794–804.